When in the midst of writing one of her novels, Barbara often complained that her characters weren’t behaving at all the way she’d expected them to. (She’s not the only writer we’ve heard making this complaint.) It seemed that once she gave them life on the page, Barbara’s “people” developed minds and voices of their own, and refused to march along the lines she’d planned for them. It’s possible that some writers make outlines, sit down, and then follow the imagined developments of plot and character as planned. This was certainly not Barbara’s approach — although she always had voluminous notes in preparation for each book, and kept notes as she went along. But often the notes would take the form of questions — “Why did [so-and-so] just do this?” “What’s going to happen to [so-and-so]?” … or, more ominously, something along the lines of “It’s getting boring, time to kill someone off!” (Picture Will Farrell begging Emma Thompson for his life in “Stranger than Fiction,” a movie that made Barbara chuckle — particularly when watching Thompson’s struggles…)
How does this get us to her cats? Well, as any cat owner can attest, cats are just as ornery as any fictional character. And it turned out that Barbara’s cats could be just as unpredictable in terms of character development as the people in her books. Take her cat Emerson, for example. He began as a gregarious Maine Coon cat, happily scooting around her house along with his many feline siblings. (The numbers could rise as high as 7, if you counted the mostly-outdoors Sethos.) However, as he hit the equivalent of feline adolescence, he abruptly became reclusive and even paranoid. Barbara had several theories about why this happened. Her favorite theory was that Emerson’s paranoia began with his fear of a particular workman who was at the house doing repairs; this theory was bolstered by the fact that Emerson reappeared each afternoon at just about the time that workman left the house (even long after the work was finished). Whatever the cause, Emerson became one of the most cowardly of cats — a far cry from the bold Radcliffe Emerson character for whom he’d been named!
Yet another unexpected cat character in Barbara’s household was Vicky — named, of course, for her dashing heroine Vicky Bliss.
Vicky was one of two cats who arrived during Barbara’s final years, mostly because she wanted a few feline denizens who would actually hang out with her. (Sethos and Emerson, for example, would sometimes disappear for long periods of time…) Maybe it was unfair to expect Vicky to be both cozy and dashing — but she turned out to be, in Barbara’s words, one of the “most boring, unimaginative” cats she’d ever owned. That didn’t mean that Vicky was any the less loved or pampered. But it certainly made her name a bad fit! Vicky could frequently be found simply looking ahead with a somewhat blank stare. Was she thinking some dark and devious thought? (If it were Barbara’s cat Gandalf, for example, it would be plausible to imagine him planning how to knock the canoptic jars in the bathroom down the stairs.) Given that it was Vicky, who seemed to prefer things simple, probably not. There was always something a bit Victorian (in the more conventional sense) about Vicky’s sedate approach to life. Cozy, settled in her ways, known to slowly chase a ribbon (if dangled right in front of her nose) — but not too bright.
So much for an author’s attempt to control character development — whether in her books, or among her cats! (And yet both kinds of characters, while they could be frustrating at times, yielded a great deal of pleasure in the end.)
Again in response to a very helpful suggestion from a “dear reader” of MPM’s, we are venturing into an exploration of the clues she left about her writing process. Over the years, she kept various notebooks and loose notes tracking her projects, all of which we’re just beginning to unpack (literally and figuratively). Eventually, this will all be archived (about which, more as we have information).
So we can start here with just a modest set of handwritten notes from a small three-ring notebook Barbara was carrying with her between 1962 and 1964 (with a few random notes from later years). In this notebook she documented aspects of her family’s move to live in Rome for 2 years, as well as a trip she took to Egypt. The loose-leaf pages contain her observations on many topics pertinent to her writings — intermingled with to-do lists, etc., and occasional brilliant artwork by her young kids. (We are completely objective on this last point.)
Within this funny mix of mundane and writerly notes, it’s apparent that Barbara was always busy scouting various terrains for possible book topics and ideas. As devoted readers of Peters and Michaels know, settings for the books ranged across time as well as all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. It probably would not surprise those readers that we found notes on English history peppered throughout a notebook where she tracked the costs of an outing to Pompeii and kept shopping lists. Some of the notes detailed her ongoing and systematic search through a journal (Archaeologia– and remember, this was long before one could search online…). For example, there’s a series of notes on heraldry:
“Archaeologia 1949: The Ghost or Shadow as a Charge in Heraldry. Charge is blazoned “ombre” or “umbra” in Fr. + Latin. Tr. “ghost or phantom;” but by Engl. armorists it was misread shadow”…. (& these MPM notes go on for several pages-the underlining in these excerpts is hers)
More notes from the same journal track articles on “King John’s Baggage Train,” the “Body of Henry IV at Canterbury, lead perfectly preserved,” and one from 1883 on “Decorations of H. VII’s chapel” that clearly delighted her imagination:
“St. Wilgeforte (sic), In H. VII’s chapel, a young woman with long hair + turban and beard. … Was a famous image of her at St. Paul’s, + she was once a favorite. A saint who had obtained a beard to escape matrimony, thus should have some sympathy for ladies who wished to escape from it. Ladies who had husbands they wished to get rid of used to ask for her help, hence her popular name of St. Uncumber.
(Ladies who wanted husbands paid their devotions to Rood of Northdoor at St. Paul’s — Paston Letters, 11, 23.)
Uncumber is mentioned by T. More. She is offered oats — possibly because she provides a horse for an evil “housebonde” to ryde to the Devyll upon. In Ger. she was called Kummerniss, St. Liberata in Portugal + France.”
A small triumphant notation states: “Checked Archaeologia 1890 – 1909“. This was years before her book on The Murders of Richard III, but it seems as if Barbara was busily soaking up ideas from all over the historical sources she could access, as they engaged her interest and imagination. She would later explain that: “The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes.” (Yikes! Daunting!)
Whether to avoid mistakes or just to pick up ideas, she was clearly scouting many possible terrains for her novels from very early on. Canadian comics artist Kate Beaton seems to engage in a very similar process, investigating all sorts of historical sources to come up with ideas for her hilarious send-offs of people and events from long ago. For Barbara, going to original sources and places as much as she could, steeping herself in the little details of different lives: all this became a rich and fertile background from which more full-blown characters and plot lines would eventually emerge — sometimes surfacing as a (seemingly) throw-away line that made dialogue feel richer, other times forming a major backbone for particular plot arcs. In the meantime, it’s apparent she was also having a lot of fun!
Hi all, we are getting some updates on the “Discovery Sale” being held online only, alongside the Gallery Auction at Cooper’s this week. Items from both events are being displayed simultaneously, although the “Discovery” items are being sold separately (with lower-ticket stuff, it seems).
This is most definitely more Barbara’s than our kind of setting and interest, so we will just highlight the BOOKS! (Always a shared interest!) and Egyptian things that wound up in “Discovery” — but there are also some other assorted items (all marked as being Barbara’s).
BOOKS! … on Egypt; Sherlock Holmes & other detectives; novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a set of Mark Twain (a favorite author of both Barbara’s and her father’s); books on architecture & art, old-fashioned readings (Baroness Orczy, Rafael Sabatini, John Buchan, George MacDonald); books Barbara enjoyed since when she was younger (LM Montgomery, Alcott, Wren); more of the latter with some extra favorites thrown in (like Aiken and Farjeon); a mix of some of the above that adds in Noel Streatfield and E.Nesbit, among others; some L.Frank Baum; mysteries …. and, for the “Another Shirt Ruined” crew — H.Rider Haggard, along with “Sons of the Sheik” (really?) and some of her well-worn T.H. White & Elizabeth Goudge. Within those covers, many feasts.
Oh, and of course, there has to be …. a cat.
… and people who, like Barbara, are into antiques…. (unlike some (not all!) of Barbara’s progeny, for whom being dragged to antique shows ranked lower than going to the dentist).
There are going to be several events coming up in the Baltimore-Frederick area in the next couple of months that will feature some items from Barbara’s estate. One part of this effort will involve bundling part of Barbara’s (incredibly massive) book collection into themed parcels .. including, for those of you following recent exchanges about this on Facebook’s “Another Shirt Ruined” group — her H. Rider Haggard collection! (Be forewarned, Barbara used her books with gusto — they were there to be read, not looked at! She boasted that as a child, her father teased her that he never knew what food items might show up in a book she was reading….) (Chocolate ones preferred, of course.) Some of this will be cataloged online, while some will just be up for viewing at the event sites.
We mention this in case you’d like to see things from the grand to the little and silly from Barbara’s life. (To be clear, this is about sharing the fun, not urging anyone to buy anything…. there will be plenty of collector-types, just like Barbara, to do that!) You can eyeball some things online — but the actual display in the galleries may be fun to browse in person if you’re in the area (and it’s free to go see it!).
SO, the first event is at Alex Cooper’s galleries in Towson, Maryland, on April 7 and 9. The official catalog features the big items — but there should also be some smaller, Egypt-themed silly stuff on display. (Barbara prided herself on never losing a child-like sense of humor and fun, so she delighted in kids’ toys and collected Lord-of-the-Rings stuff of all kinds….) Not sure yet about the books, but will update as we can. And oh, all right, yes, there’s some furniture (yawn)(sorry, still can’t get excited about it!).
The Cooper’s brochure gives a few more details, and there are online pictures of some stuff, including that great carousel horse (the only ride she really enjoyed at amusement parks — but she would ride that one numerous times, chortling as she went!) — and of course there has to be a woman with a cat!
In response to a great suggestion from one of Barbara’s “dear readers,” we’ve been inspired to post a little something about the room where she did her writing, in her beloved “MPM Manor” out in the Maryland countryside. She bought the old farmhouse from an interior designer, so it had already been decked out and updated in style. The study area already had a beautifully draped fabric hung from the ceiling; when it came time to replace that, MPM decided to have fun and “go golden.” Her house contained large collections of all kinds of books — mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, children’s books, classic literature (Jane Austen!), melodramatic old accounts of desert romances, you name it. In the study she kept a collection of her own books — one copy of each edition, including those in many different languages and the audio book versions. She also surrounded herself with books and journals pertaining to her central interests — Ancient Egypt, and the histories surrounding the exploration and development of archaeology there ….
Also bedecking her walls and shelves were many humorous notes and pictures from her writer friends, many of whom shared her often quirky sense of humor. Take, for example, the “Literary Cupcake” prize that she received from a mysterious group — for some serious accomplishments (tooth-chipping, anyone?):
It was less than a month before she died when Barbara put down her pen, announcing that she would not be writing any more. This caught many of us by surprise, much as we’d known the day would have to come. But despite many attempts to “retire” in previous years, she’d always found herself bored, restless, at sea when she stopped writing – and eventually relented to write (usually) “one more” Amelia. As it had been since she was a very young woman, writing remained her solace, the goal toward which so many of her days were bent. Through even the worst of days, it was the imaginative lens through which she loved to think about the world — and the magic that she sought to share with her readers. What a gift.
Hi all! This post took some time to compose, but with help from fans and friends, we’ve begun to pull together some of the diverse threads of the Mertz-Peters-Michaels fandom for this “Review of the MPM World in 2015.” If you know of something we missed, we’d love to hear from you!
This has been an exciting time for us. As novices in social media, we at MPM have been really enjoying our introductions to the rich and creative discussions and posts in places like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr … and we’ve just started to venture into Pinterest as well. MPM fans are doing everything from readings of Amelia books (complete with period illustrations and background research) – to a collective effort at developing a timeline for the AP series. And there are fun musings on all aspects of MPM’s writings in a number of places – we keep finding more….
One terrific thing about this fandom is that it is always turning up news on Egypt, history, archaeology, pioneering women, writing and literature, mystery and fantasy, and … the list keeps going! (Let’s not forget cats, tea, stronger drinks than tea, food, chocolate … but we digress…) In other words, these are curious, imaginative, interesting and interested readers who keep the fun and new ideas going…. from Amarna to Jane Austen to Star Wars, there’s never a dull moment…
Fans of Amelia characteristically turned up in force in response to the wonderful Trowelblazer group’s call for names of fictional trowelblazers (pioneering women in archaeology, palaeontology & geology).
On Twitter and Tumblr, the unstoppable TeamRamses (TR) completed a spirited (and always funny!) reading of “Lion in the Valley”, and set us up for a 2016 foray into “Seeing a Large Cat.” (Check out the growing and beautifully illustrated set of quotes from “Cat” on Tumblr) We especially appreciated TR’s explanation of 3 story arcs in the Amelia series.
MPM started its own Twitter account this year. Other Twitter highlights in 2015:
- an exchange about cool things people learned (and did extra reading on) from reading Amelia, ranging from Cyrano to Egyptian history (this is so Barbara!)
- Fans began trading names of favorite children’s books, responding to pics from Barbara’s massive collection of kids’ reading (… we started trying to collect them on this blog, to be cont’d…)
- Also, a discussion that started on Twitter in 2015 and continued on Facebook in 2016 – what are fans’ favorite flavors of the “genial beverage” to accompany them when curling up with an MPM book?
- Lots of Amelia recommendations
- And fellow authors expressing their appreciation of MPM!
Fans of Amelia have been popping up and gathering at amazing rates. It’s really encouraging to see new people tuning in to say that they are so glad to find other fans! Or that they are just now discovering Amelia! (lucky dogs! Imagine having the whole series to discover).
You can also now find MPM on Tumblr.
And, in addition to TR, there are some great long-term Amelia-ites on Tumblr: CHECK OUT AmeliaPeabodyEmerson (APE) and AmeliaPeabodyBookClub (APBC), who joined forces this year to take us on a tour of the Petrie Museum in London. Take a look as they “hit up the Petrie Museum for some mutual Egyptology and Amelia Peabody geeking out.”
AmeliaPeabodyEmerson’s Tumblr tag line is a favorite Amelia-ism: “When one is striding bravely into the future one cannot watch one’s footing”… and the APE archive has some great quotes from the books.
Also on Tumblr, APBC updated the Book Club’s pages, which have a growing wealth of commentary, analysis, fanart, and more. One of the more searching discussions of some hard-to-pin-down aspects of Amelia’s timeline can be found here. The Book Club crew also began a discussion and critique of some Egypt-related movies. In 2016 AMBC is inviting fans and friends to join in the the ambitious task of putting together a detailed timeline for the AP series – the start of which can be seen here.
Further Tumblr highlights in 2015:
- fun fan readings of AP at gideonseymours.tumblr , including this sage advice:
“We now know what these fellows are after. Or should I say ‘who’?”
“You should say ‘whom,’ Emerson.”
listen … what am i going to do when i finish this series
Start over at the beginning? That’s what I do.
you know … you’re right
- Tumblr reading of Hippopotamus earlier in 2015
- … and readings/quotes at arramdraper.tumblr, which took us from “Deeds” to “Last Camel” in 2015. We loved the hashtags on this post:
“f i n a l l y finished my deeds of the disturber reread … and now I have to dedicate my weekend to work and studying and a case presentation bUT. once that’s done I am 100% rereading the Last Camel”
On Facebook, the venerable and venerated “Another Shirt Ruined” group continues to provide opportunities for fans and friends to share thoughts about MPM’s books, as well as memories of Barbara (thanks to Lyn Green’s leadership!). In 2015, Don Ryan posted a lovely recollection: “I met Barbara about 20 years ago and we became very good friends. She loved visiting Egypt from time to time, especially Luxor, where she rented the most expensive suite at the Winter Palace Hotel. She was usually accompanied by a small entourage of pals and they all had a grand time. Her visits coincided a couple of times with my expedition in the Valley of the Kings and we were delighted that she came out to the site to see what we were finding. And every evening she would have cocktails with her friends out on her balcony to watch the beautiful sunset over the Theban mountains.”
Lyn Green and William Joy also pointed readers of “Another Shirt” to the way Barbara combined research for her books with hobbies such as vintage clothing and jewelry collecting. And there were interesting posts to this group on Hilda Petrie and similarities between her and Amelia — as well as comments on MPM books beyond just the Amelia series. You can also check out MPM’s own new Facebook page.
And we are using THIS BLOG as our primary site for recollections of Barbara, inspired initially by Deborah Lehr’s wonderful piece written on the second anniversary of Barbara’s death in August of 2015. We thank William and Laura for their work in getting us up and running in these various locations – and the generous friends and fans who’ve welcomed and supported these nascent efforts.
WEBPAGE UPDATE: we’re in the process of shifting Barbara’s official webpage, and are awaiting that shift before anything more can be added. Stay tuned for news on that and other developments, through this blog.
You’re very welcome to JOIN IN these efforts, or let us know about other efforts we haven’t yet discovered! The MPM email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s something about cats and writers, not sure what, but certainly any fan or friend of Barbara’s knew the connection was there! Every year at this time, for many years, she sent out an annual season’s greetings… and each card featured one of her cats.
So, in honor of the season, we thought we’d share a photo from 2007. Here you see a younger version of Gandalf (whom you met in an earlier post as he clung determinedly to “his” chair in Barbara’s kitchen).
For anyone wanting to revel in cats and seasonal references, we recommend Trojan Gold — a Vicky Bliss mystery. Set against the backdrop of a Bavarian Christmas, the book ends with a feline flourish… (No spoilers! But suffice it to say that one of our heroes may have met his most painful adversary in a cat resisting the indignity of a bow tied around her neck … “The bow was under her chin, and so lacerated I had to cut the ribbon off. It took all three of us to cram her in the carrier I had bought that morning…. the thing that touched me the most was my hero’s gallantry in taking on [the cat] singlehanded…”)
With each new year, like many in her Amelia Peabody family, Barbara often spoke of her hopes for a peace that could reach across senseless habits of suspicion, violence, and ill-will toward others. This seems an appropriate year to renew those wishes, in the spirit of good-will and basic human decency that characterized so much of what she stood for.
All our best hopes and wishes to you and yours in 2016.